Sea Island Strata

At a former Georgia plantation, archaeologists delve into both the workaday and spiritual lives of slaves.

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The most intriguing find so far is a pewter tobacco-pipe charm about an inch long. A carving of a face topped by a crown appears on the front. Elliott's interpretation of it is based in part on a similar pipe excavated from a pre-Civil War settlement of free African-Americans in Augusta, Georgia. He speculates that the king's image may be modeled on a statue excavated in the 1840s at Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Assyrian empire, in present-day Iraq. In the Old Testament, the prophet Nahum foresees the destruction of the people of Nineveh because of their wicked ways. For the slaves, the Nineveh-inspired pipe charm may have been a symbol of the Southern plantation system and their hope for its eventual destruction, says Elliott.

Most of Elliott's artifacts come from the 19th century, but the deeper he dug, the farther back in time he went. He uncovered 18th-century objects such as brass buttons and shards of English slipware, a coarse pottery with combed decorations that is rarely found after the Colonial era. Inside the middle cabin he discovered 44 tobacco pipe stems that date on average to about 1769; other archaeologists have documented that holes in pipe stems grew smaller over the years as the technology to make them improved. The pipes and other artifacts led Elliott to conclude that an earlier slave dwelling once sat where the middle cabin was built.

Using ground-penetrating radar, Elliott has found promising places to dig in the future, including the possible remains of a Colonial-era, circular-shaped dwelling and what looks to be another buried cabin. Artifacts from Ossabaw give us "a personal window into what slaves' lives were like," says David Crass, Georgia's state archaeologist—lives that otherwise were recorded merely as property.

Eric Wills lives in Washington, D.C. and specializes in writing about history and architecture.


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